At least in Portugal, news of the preparatory document for the Synod of Bishops in October 2014 on the topic family arrived on mainstream radio stations as:
“The Pope is asking Catholics what they think of topics such as homosexuality and divorce.”
“The Church will have a Synod to reevaluate its position on topics such as birth control.”
And my reaction was, “Whaaaaat? No, this certainly cannot be right.” Yet uneasiness settled into my stomach, as I imagined what a “general poll” of these very, very touchy yet essentially vital subjects could do to the Church. And an even stranger queasiness set in when I tried to imagine the intentions of our Pope.
In the first place, this is not a “general poll” as I was pleased to discover. Nor is it asking about people’s opinions on doctrine and whether it should be changed. The Preparatory Document is a survey that will be handled at the diocesan level, and each conference of bishops can decide how it will be handled.
The Preparatory Document clearly states in its first part that the family as the first cell of society is in dire need of pastoral assistance. “The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family” (Gaudium et Spes, 47). The family being so much at risk puts all of society at risk. The second paragraph in the Preparatory Document does not cite the “modern family” as something better or different than the “traditional family”, but cites the radical changes in family that have been largely accepted as concerns, which are urgent enough to justify two synods back to back:
“Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations, from … cohabitation … to same-sex unions between persons, who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children … mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; … forms of feminism hostile to the Church; migration and the reformulation of the very concept of the family; relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; … an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire); and new interpretations of what is considered a human right.”
It makes sense for the Church to address practically and pastorally the crises of our time. The Nicene Creed was largely developed to clarify beliefs against Arianism in the 4th century and councils were convened many times to counter other heresies. The counter-reformation was an entire movement of the Catholic Church reacting to the separation of Protestants. We have beautiful doctrine about the family and our nature of love… but how is the Church really unpacking this and helping people live and understand it, while facing these pressing concerns? It’s an important question to ask.
Part two of the Preparatory Document cites many Church documents where doctrine on the family can be found. There is a fundamental difference between doctrine and discipline. Doctrine is a teaching that relates to faith and morals and that does not change… no matter what. We don’t believe that God wants to confuse us or make us guess about essential matters to our salvation. Instead, we believe that God makes those clear and we can count on their trustworthy interpretation by the Church throughout the centuries. No man, including the Pope, makes up doctrine. Doctrine is revealed and can be developed throughout time, but not changed. It is contained in the Bible and in the Tradition handed down by the apostles and their Successor. John Paul II’s series of talks popularly called “Theology of the Body” are based on Scripture and early Church teachings, and were written to explain the reasons behind the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The Pope can expound doctrine, but not make it up. A discipline, on the other hand, helps the faithful live out their faith and can be changed, such as abstaining from meat on Fridays for example.
Archbishop Bruno Forte explained in a press conference about the document:
“It is not, therefore, a matter of debating doctrinal questions, which have in any case been clarified by the Magisterium recently … the invitation deriving from this for all the Church is to listen to the problems and expectations of many families today, manifesting her closeness and credibly proposing God’s mercy and the beauty of responding to His call”.
You can look to the very Catechism of the Catholic Church for doctrine on marriage (CCC 1601), homosexuality (CCC 2357) and birth control (CCC 2366 and 2370). Look to John Paul II’s lifetime of documents including Theology of the Body Wednesday audiences (1979-1984), Letter to Women (1995), Letter to Families (1994), Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981), Evangelium Vitae (1995); Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI (1968); documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on homosexuality and bioethical questions; and documents from the Pontifical Council for the Familiy. Now is a good time to know, live and teach what the Church’s Truth about the family is and why it is so crucial for our times.
The questions addressed to local Churches in the Preparatory document are of a practical and pastoral nature. They ask, “What is being done to help people understand Church’s teachings? What is being done to help people live Church’s teachings?” I hope this aid includes helping faithful and prayerful spouses who are open to life. Yet it is also understandable that the Church need to reach out to people in other situations. The Church points the way of love that Christ taught and calls all to conversion.
So… are you still scared of the Synod? I’m not anymore. The truth is, if it had been John Paul II (whom I consider specifically gifted and with a vocation for family pastoral concerns), I would be spinning cartwheels. I don’t know Pope Francis as well and I have no idea what will happen in terms of the Church’s practical response to families in need. However, I trust the Holy Spirit will guide its Church and St. Peter’s successor. Let’s do our part and pray for the family, speak up for the family and most importantly live as family. I’ll finish off with some of Pope Francis’s own words from his encyclical:
The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan. Lumen Fidei, n. 52